Under Trees of Gold by Certh

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Story Notes:

Sequel to Before the Last Battle

Chapter 1

The weather could be a fickle thing. Crossing the west lawn of the Houses of Healing, Idrin glanced up at the bright sky, wondering. Not so long earlier a great blast of wind had gusted through the city, making window-shutters rattle and roaring wildly through tree-branches, bringing with it an icy chill, yet now all was still and the sun was blazing.

The young woman found Merry Brandybuck standing just inside an open doorway that led to the covered walk facing the south garden, fingering a small pipe with a curved stem.

The Halfling turned at the sound of footsteps and tried to stifle his amusement as the healer stopped short, her nose twitching for the most fleeting of moments when she caught sight of the pipe in his hand, one eyebrow rising as she peered at it.

“I shan't smoke here,” said Merry with a small laugh; “I am bound for the garden.”

Idrin shook her head. “I shall never understand what it is that makes the burning leaves of galenas so appealing to you. The fragrance of its flowers is sweet, true enough, but to draw such smoke into the lungs...”

The Halfling hummed, twirling the pipe in his fingers. “'Tis one of life's little pleasures,” he said. “Sitting back with a pipe can be a relaxing thing, calming to the mind.”

The healer's head absently tipped on one side as she considered the words. “Each to his own, I suppose,” she said at last with a small shrug. “The Men of Gondor do not smoke, so the habit seems strange to us.”¹

“It is much like Hobbits and boats,” said Merry: “we Brandybucks can handle boats and swim and because of that many Hobbits think we are a queer sort. Of course, the fact that we live by the Old Forest adds to that.” He chuckled to himself and caught the healer's curious gaze. “It's a forest on the borders of my land that none – well, except for a few adventurous Brandybucks – dare enter. We had to cross it when we left the Shire. It's a dark and stuffy place, and the trees in there aren't friendly – they must have been Ents once, Ents who went tree-ish or trees who went Entish, as Treebeard in Fangorn Forest puts it.”

Idrin was looking at him, her eyes bright. “I have heard stories of Ents but never thought there was any truth to them.”

“Treebeard is the oldest of the Ents,” said Merry; ”he even knew the West of Middle-earth before it sank.”

There was wonder in the young woman's gaze as she watched him. “It is like a children's tale come to life.” Her voice was low as she spoke and her face lit. “To think that such creatures truly exist... it is almost unbelievable.”

Merry began to nod but his attention was suddenly caught by a flurry of movement and lively whispers in a group of convalescing soldiers nearby: the men's quiet voices had become more excited and they gestured towards the sky briskly. Following their gaze, the Halfling saw the reason for their awe and stared wide-eyed at the great Eagle coming out of the East. He was aware that Idrin beside him had become still, her attention fixed on the mighty bird.

The Eagle soared over the Guarded City, bearing tidings of the downfall of the Dark Lord and the crumbling of his Tower, and Merry felt as though a swarm of butterflies were fluttering in his chest.

“The Shadow has passed,” he whispered. “It is truly over at last.” His face beaming, he turned to Idrin, looking up at her with a wide grin.

The healer met his enthusiasm with a slow smile and then blinked. “The War is ended,” she said as though talking to herself. “Battle will no longer be lurking on our borders.” She blinked again and looked about her as one drawn from a daze. “I must take my leave of you, Meriadoc; there is much to be done.” There was cheer in her voice and her steps were light as she passed beneath the arched entryway, going into the building.

Behind her, Merry smiled softly at the garden stretching in front of him, humming under his breath.

* * *

Hundreds of miles away, as night fell on the plain of Dagorlad, dozens of small fires kept the darkness at bay. Beyond the reach of the farthest firelight lay the final resting place of those Men slain in battle, the freshly dug mounds barely discernible in the deep gloom. Farther even, the pyres where their fallen enemies had been given to the flames smoked still, though faintly.

Within the camp, Men sat around bright firepits and by the entrances of tents, talking and drinking and whetting blades. Healers milled about, tending the more severely injured, while a small band of soldiers undertook the task of preparing food. The night was alive with many voices.

“How are your men, Éothain?”

The loud call came from the vicinity of his tent, and the man in question saw that King Éomer and several others were seated around a crackling fire nearby. He came to a slow halt by them, his right leg dragging slightly. “Well enough, now their wounds have been tended,” he replied, “though the last blow dealt to Heregár cost him his sight. He will return to Minas Tirith with the wagons on the morrow.”

Éomer nodded and gave the Captain of his household éored a measured look. “Now, sit and pay more mind to your leg. I had thought the battle would cripple you.”

Éothain sat across from him. “It did not,” he returned curtly, his mouth tightening.

“You might still end up with a lame limb if you do not take more care,” the king pressed on.

Éothain huffed. “You sound like the healer who stitched me in Mundburg. So insistent I should stay there and do nothing.”

The dark-haired man seated beside Erkenbrand looked up at the captain as he stirred the fire with a stick. The logs crackled and sparks rose up into the night air. “You yourself said your father lost the use of his leg because he paid little heed to the healers. If the muscle tears again, you will be in no better position.”

Éothain's jaw clenched for a moment. “I have used the salve and rested as much as I could,” he said. “Stiffness is to be expected after a battle like the one we gave today.”

Across from him, Éomer shook his head, his lip curling. “Stubborn ass.”

Éothain turned his gaze on him and opened his mouth, but before he could speak, a voice on the edge of the firelight interrupted him.

“The cooks tell me supper will be ready in a few minutes.”

The dark-headed man who had spoken came to stand by the other Gondorian in the small company.

Éomer rose and looked about. “This place now looks less dreary in moonlight,” he said, “yet I shall not rest comfortably until we leave it behind us.”

“None of us will find easy repose tonight, I think,” returned the second Gondorian as he got to his feet. He looked down at Éothain.

The man nodded towards the cookfires. “Go,” he said. “I will join you shortly.”

He watched the others walk away and stood. On the far side of the camp Éothain could see the crude enclosure erected to holdthe army's destriers and dray-horses, a section of the temporary paddock set apart for the swift horses of messengers. Eight men would ride from the encampment at first light, bound for Cair Andros and thence north and south of the White Mountains, bearing the news of the Dark Lord's defeat.

Éothain considered the wooden sheds for a moment and took a step towards them when a sudden pain made him wince and stop. He turned instead to his tent and strode inside, rummaging in the saddlebags beside his bedroll. He found clean cloths, filled a bowl with water and carried everything outside. Sitting by the fire, he took off his tunic and probed carefully at his lower back.
Even though he could not see it, he could feel the sword-cut was not very deep, but a bruise had formed nearly a hand's width above it where a heavy blow had forced his mail-shirt into his right side. He ground his teeth against a wince and reached for a cloth to dunk in water and wash the wound.

"'Tis more prudent to let another treat a wound you cannot see," a voice came suddenly from behind him, making him turn sharply. The soon-to-be-crowned King of Gondor stepped around the firepit and squatted next to him. "Let me."

The Rider allowed the man to take the cloth from his hands. "Thank you, lord." Silence fell for a time as Aragorn cleaned the wound gently, but Éothain soon opened his mouth. “You have tended the injured since the battle ended,” he said and then paused, considering.

Aragorn felt the Rider's hesitation. “I have ever seen to the hurts of my companions, Éothain,” he returned; “that will not change now.” He reached inside the small bag he carried, daubed salve on the man's wound and bound soft pads of cotton-cloth to his side. Éothain was still.

“The people of Gondor are fortunate to have such a king,” he said slowly.

Aragorn bowed his head, the corners of his mouth moving imperceptibly. His gaze fell on a dark smudge staining Éothain's breeches above one boot when the Rider shifted in his seat, and he gestured towards it. “Let me see your leg.”

Readjusting his tunic, Éothain glanced up at him before obliging. "I cut the stitches yestereve,” he said as the skin was slowly exposed.

Aragorn peered at the crimson marks left on the flesh and scrubbed the crusted blood away. Fresh red drops appeared when he probed the area where the first stitches had been. “They cut into the flesh, and here the skin has not knit together as it should,” he said looking up. “You should be more mindful of this wound. Have you salve to treat it?”

“I do,” replied the Rider as Aragorn reached for the jar of ointment beside him.

* * *

It was five days later that the messengers came to the Guarded City. Two rode up to the Citadel in search of Faramir while the others stationed themselves in the large square in the fourth circle, with rolls of parchment recording the names of those fallen on the battlefield and letters in need of delivery.

So it was that near sunset one of the young boys running errands for the healers found Idrin and placed a letter in her hand. The seal was plain and the writing on the back was in Arvinion's slightly angular script. She breathed a sigh of relief at the sight and thanked the lad, making towards the Citadel.

Once within the Steward's House, the young woman broke the wax that sealed the letter and smoothed the page. Both he and Damhir were well, her brother wrote; he wrote also of their march to the Black Gate and of the battle they had fought and the brothers-in-arms they had lost, of the coming of great Eagles out of the West and of the fall of Mordor. They would celebrate their victory on the field of Cormallen, he finished, and hoped she might be able to join them there if her duties at the Houses allowed.

Idrin felt warmth spreading through her limbs at the prospect of being reunited with her brothers so soon; she would speak with the Chief Healer the following day, she decided.

After a visit to her bedchamber to refresh herself, she descended to the dining hall where she found the housekeeper examining the set table, her gaze critical.

The tall, stout woman turned dark eyes on Idrin when she perceived she was not alone and bowed her head. “Good evening, lady. I trust you had word from your brothers.”

Idrin smiled widely. “Yes, both are well. I may join them on Cormallen if the Chief Healer gives me leave.”

The housekeeper's mouth twitched for the most fleeting of instances. “You are lucky, child.” Her voice was slow and dull, tired.

The glimmer in Idrin's eyes faded and she peered at the middle-aged woman. “Is it your son, Laidhril?”

The housekeeper's grave face was still. “He fell at Cair Andros.” She heaved a deep breath and swallowed hard. “He was no soldier,” she whispered slowly as though speaking to herself.

Idrin looked at her, silent. Laidhril's son was a farmer, she knew, like the late father he had never met. The young woman brought to mind those close to her that the War had claimed nearly one year past – she had mourned for them, yet now it all seemed so distant. “He wanted to serve his king,” she said at last.

“Aye,” the housekeeper muttered, “and that service cost him his life.” After a while, she shook her head. “I should not lay my burdens on you, lady,” she said.

Idrin studied her. “Go and seek what repose you may, Laidhril. The servants can handle the rest tonight.”

The woman inclined her head slowly. “Thank you, lady.”

As the housekeeper turned away, Idrin saw Faramir entering the dining hall. He gave her a wan smile and sank promptly into a chair. The young woman took a seat across from him.

“A long day, cousin?” she enquired.

Faramir reached for the cup of wine a serving-man placed before him. “Yes,” he said, “dominated by books of account and councillors.” He set the cup down. “Those Rohirrim who fell on the Pelennor and before the Black Gate, as well as those who succumbed to their injuries in the Houses of Healing have been named, and the two messengers King Éomer sent here will return what belongings the soldiers had to their families in Rohan.”

A second serving-man brought their evening meal, and Faramir helped himself to cold capon. “The City will soon flood with both returning citizens and soldiers,” he said; “their provender shall have to be seen to, and the clothing of the returning army, no doubt. The King's House shall have to be aired and cleaned, domestics found to serve there when the Lord Elessar settles in.” He let out a deep breath and looked at Idrin. “Would you help me with this last task? Your skill at seeing to such things far surpasses mine.”

Idrin had glanced up from her plate. “Of course,” she now said promptly.

Faramir gave a short sigh. “I miss the days when I was confined to the Houses of Healing, merely resting and speaking with Éowyn.”

The young woman peered at him. She had seen her cousin and Éowyn walking together in the gardens of the Houses, and the White Lady of Rohan had looked quite lovely when she smiled. “You are fond of her.”

“I am,” Faramir admitted; “but it has been some days since we spoke last.”

Idrin sipped from her cup. “Council matters cannot last forever.”

The Steward of Gondor nodded absently.

Chapter End Notes:

¹ 'The Men of Gondor call [pipe-weed] sweet galenas, and esteem it only for the fragrance of its flowers.' (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue, Concerning Pipe-weed)

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